Football Commentary: Manchester draw pride from European community

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a day of celebration as much as mourning, and dear old Sir Matt, peering down from heaven's gate, will have loved it. From a European draw, conducted with impressive efficiency, on through a swaggering farewell salute from his beloved United, Manchester did him proud.

The father of the famous Babes did more than anyone to promote our clubs' involvement in Continental competition, and it was fitting that a day of tributes should start with the draw for the 1996 European Championship.

More appropriate still, some 200 delegates from 47 countries went on to watch United play Everton at Old Trafford in a high-quality match which was the best possible advertisement for the domestic game. Sad? Yes, but it was also a good day for English football.

A moving little speech from Bobby Charlton and it was on with the draw. Respectful, but never maudlin. Just how the great man would have wanted it.

For once, the Football Association got it just about right. The preamble included the inevitable promotional guff, but it was kept brief.

The entertainment package, too, was in welcome contrast to the brash trash which attended the World Cup draw in Las Vegas, although 'Any Old Iron' and 'Knees up Mother Brown' seemed to lose something in the translation for a puzzled-looking delegation of Balkan origin.

Macedonia, Armenia, Slovenia, Estonia - they were all there in the biggest entry the tournament has known. 'All we're missing is inertia,' a Celtic cynic growled. 'They're over there' came the reply, with a nod in the direction of Graham Kelly and Sir Bert.

The draw was conducted at the Granada Television studios, and the sight of the FA party taking a casual stroll on the Baker Street set prompted the suggestion that they might like to call in at number 221b for a consultation with Sherlock and the good doctor. 'The new England manager? Elementary my dear Millichip'.

The hosts were not alone in their embarrassment when Uefa called for the customary group picture of team coaches. 'The England manager?' Sorry. 'Northern Ireland?' No can do. 'Wales then?' Possibly next week. 'The Republic of Ireland?' Gone fishing. Scotland's Craig Brown has never been so popular.

How did he feel about Group 8, where his team are bracketed with Russia, Greece, Finland, the Faroe Islands and San Marino? Better than the Welsh did about getting Germany, yet again.

Brown was optimistic about the Scots' prospects of qualifying. 'I believe we have a fighting chance,' he said. 'I think Russia will be the toughest opposition, but I would hope - no, expect - to get three points out of the two games against them. I don't think Finland should be underestimated. They are strong, fit and well prepared.' San Marino? Their name guarantees a smile these days. 'We'll be OK - as long as we don't concede a goal in the first minute.'

Wales are less than thrilled about going in with the Germans, who they have beaten just once in 10 attempts, but feel they have a decent chance of qualifying as runners-up, at the expense of Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania and Moldova.

The two Irelands were anxious to avoid each other after their recent acrimonious World Cup tie in Belfast, but Murphy's law came into operation in Group 6, and in they go together in probably the most competitive section, where Portugal and Austria will be problematic.

The word is that Big Jack will move heaven and earth to avoid playing the last, potentially decisive qualifier at Windsor Park again.

World Cup familiarity will also breed respect in Group 5, where the Dutch have learned to take nothing but hard work for granted against Norway, and in Group 2, where Spain will again expect to come out on top against Denmark, but must be wary of the third seeds, Belgium.

Finally, spare a thought for Italy, whose itinerary is more KGB than Uefa. Visits to the Ukraine, Croatia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia will have the Azzurri travelling with their own chef, but the Stalin tour is not without its compensations. In playing terms, theirs is the easiest task of all the eight top seeds. 'They've got a better chance of qualifying than England,' said sarcastic of Salford.

England, of course, are not required to qualify, and the new manager will work off a humdrum diet of friendlies these next two years. New manager? The smart money is still on Terry Venables. By Thursday.

The last word belonged to Lennart Johansson, Uefa's avuncular president. Why had England been chosen to stage the tournament? 'We wanted to give it to the mother of football.' The father of Old Trafford would have appreciated that.

DRAW: Group One: France, Romania, Poland, Israel, Slovakia, Azerbaijan.

Group Two: Denmark, Spain, Belgium, Macedonia, Cyprus, Armenia.

Group Three (five teams): Sweden, Switzerland, Hungary, Iceland, Turkey.

Group Four: Italy, Ukraine, Croatia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia.

Group Five: Netherlands, Norway, Czech Republic, Belarus, Malta, Luxembourg.

Group Six: Republic of Ireland, Portgual, Northern Ireland, Austria, Latvia, Liechtenstein.

Group Seven: Germany, Wales, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania, Moldova.

Group Eight: Russia, Greece, Scotland, Finland, Faroe Islands, San Marino.